The specter of Stalin still haunts Europe

We view World War II as a virtuous struggle. Unfortunately, we are not much more than half right. Yes, we defeated Nazism, but only with vital help from Soviet Communism. This double-edged victory has dominated the world order ever since, its ill effects surviving long after the end of the Cold War. It helps explain why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last year and why his defeat in the ensuing conflict is essential to world peace.

Hitler lost. His dream of a greater Reich crumbled. Some people may still harbor his dark thoughts, but his ideology remains dishonored.

Stalin won. The victory of 1945 allows him to extend the Russian empire far beyond its former tsarist borders. His thoughts were as dark as Hitler’s, and victory left him free to continue persecuting the peoples he already controlled.

In the case of Ukraine, Stalin had, in the early 1930s, imposed the Holodomor (“death by starvation”), deliberately starving perhaps five million people. Throughout his empire he constantly moved ethnic groups, forcibly and en masse, to remote areas where they could barely survive.

In Kyiv last month, I met Sevgil Musayeva, the editor of Ukrainska Pravda, the country’s independent online newspaper. Luckily, our meeting took place on the day Stalin commemorated the deportation of the Tartars from their native Crimea in 1944.

Sevgil’s own great-grandmother, 40, was among the deportees, traveling with her 13-year-old son. During the terrible waterless train journey to the east, the boy thought his mother was sleeping. When he tried to wake her, he discovered that she was dead. In 1989, as the Soviet grip loosened, Sevgil’s surviving family returned to Crimea. At the beginning of this century, as Putin’s threats to the peninsula grew, his parents moved to kyiv. When he invaded Ukraine last year, they fled to Germany – exiles once again, persecuted by the same mindset for 80 years.

Putin is probably not a communist. He certainly has no objection to the private appropriation of the fruits of mass labor by a privileged few. But he is Stalin’s heir. He sees the dissolution of the Soviet empire by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 as the great catastrophe for Russia. In his mind, that’s what Germany’s defeat in 1918 was like in Hitler’s: the humiliation to be avenged.

Imprisoned in the 1920s, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, laying out his racial theories and territorial ambitions with a frankness that most people, strangely, ignored. Locked in by his own Covid restrictions, Putin wrote his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, arguing that there is no such country as Ukraine. Hitler stuck to his twisted version of his country’s fate. Putin shows every sign of doing the same.

Ukrainians understand this. They know that an invader who denies their national existence will also deny them their rights and their lives. Like a little Stalin, Putin is already deporting them, torturing them and murdering them. That’s why they fought so well and are about to strike back once again.

They see it almost arithmetically. As one soldier told me, “The Russians have three times our population and they want to kill us. So I have to kill at least three and preferably 15 or 20.” Knowing that someone is trying to kill you focuses the mind.

The whole world concentrates its mind less. Putin is not currently trying to kill us, although he likes to mutter threats of nuclear annihilation. So we tend to evade reality and look for complicated diplomatic solutions. At first, France and Germany, in particular, were looking for potentially ignominious loopholes. Britain, led at the time by Boris Johnson, was more far-sighted and the rest under Rishi Sunak.

The 15 months since the failed invasion has given Ukraine’s allies a crash course in war studies, learning what previously might have taken an entire academic career. They were forced to confront Putin’s dark logic.

Take, for example, his famous phrase “special military operation” to describe his invasion. It’s been mocked as a propaganda understatement, but that’s what he really thinks. For Putin, this is not a war. A war is something you fight against another country. He constantly asserts that the country called Ukraine does not exist. So it’s just a military operation to get rid of “neo-Nazis and drug addicts” who he says have somehow taken over.

Because he initially failed to understand Putin’s full intention, President Joe Biden spoke early last year of possible “minor incursions” by Russia that might be tolerable. In Putin’s mind, none of his forays are minor, as all of them share his major objective. Mr. Biden finally acknowledged this and backed Ukraine with impressive amounts of weaponry.

Putin’s paranoid vision also asserts that “the West” wishes to crush the Russian world. In this context, he uses the word “war”. War, he says, is what we want to inflict on him, not what he is waging in Ukraine.

At first, this prompted NATO allies to hold back, fearing to be accused of “provocation”. Now they tend to think the bluff can be called. In Moldova this week, leaders of the European Political Community Summit clashed to welcome Ukraine’s NATO membership. Their presence in another threatened country is a warning to Russia not to attempt an invasion there. Their nations weathered (costly) the energetic storm that Putin unleashed on them last year. The lesson is that every time they show resolve, Putin doesn’t know what to do next.

When, in 2014, the allies began to focus seriously on Ukraine’s problems, they misjudged its invasion of Crimea. They lamented it, of course, but they also felt that the place was, somehow – and despite previous agreements – Russia’s anyway. Admit that tacitly, they thought, and maybe things would calm down. Even today, they probably still view Crimea as the only place Russia might be allowed to keep once peace returns.

With their superior understanding of Putin’s logic, Ukrainians see it differently. They know he considers Crimea his greatest triumph yet and his best strategic Ukrainian possession, as it gives him control of the Black Sea. He dispossessed existing owners to settle Russian pensioners and build villas for wealthy Russians in the pleasant climate of Crimea. He said: “Sevastopol is a Russian city”. He reaffirmed Imperial Russia.

So the Ukrainians want to take back Crimea even more, I have the impression, than they want Donbass. They know well how much Putin has achieved by stepping forward. Bolster his gains and he’ll just try to grab more. Reverse its principal, and the rest could fall apart.

Precisely because, contrary to Putin’s claims, the NATO allies never sought to enlist Ukraine in an East-West struggle, it remains exposed. To become independent in the 1990s, it had to get rid of its nuclear weapons, with no security guarantee from NATO in return. Even if we help Ukraine, we dare not fight directly for its life. However, if he wins, we win. If he loses, power swings against the free world in a way that hasn’t happened since the 1930s.

In her famous Bruges speech of 1988, Margaret Thatcher tried to call for a wider Europe by saying boldly: “We will always consider Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities. With the end of the Cold War, the hope that lay behind his words came true. It is high time to add kyiv to his list.

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